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Teachers’ Perceptions About the Achievement Gap: Understanding the Discursive Construction of Whiteness

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About 18 years ago, I taught my first Master’s level course.  A quiet, attentive young woman sat in the back of the room.  She didn’t say much but her eyes attended to everything going on in the room.  I read her first paper and said to myself, “This woman is brilliant.”  Eighteen years later, I had the privilege to serve on her dissertation committee and witness her complete her formal education journey by defending her dissertation and becoming Dr. Virginia Padilla-Vigil.  I am so very proud of her.


Not only does this dissertation have significance for me personally, but the content has significance for me as a teacher educator and educational reformer.  As Dr. Padilla-Vigil noted in her dissertation defense, teachers are the most powerful people on the planet.  They make decisions every day that affect each of their student’s lives.  These decisions last a lifetime.  As such, diversity and cultural awareness initiatives must include examining and unlearning whiteness-at-work and racism through the development of critical reflective practices.

The following excerpts are taken from Dr. Padilla-Vigil’s (Gina’s) dissertation are especially relevant in this discussion.  I recommend reflecting deeply on her comments and findings.

Padilla-Vigil, V. (2013).  Teachers’ Perceptions About the Achievement Gap: Understanding the Discursive Construction of Whiteness. Unpublished dissertation: University of New Mexico.

As I look back on my experiences as a student in northern New Mexico schools, I would describe my schooling in the tradition of the “banking method” of education (Freire, 1993).  I was taught through a rigidly authoritarian framework and I have vivid memories of feeling fearful and intimidated as a learner in classrooms.  Critical thinking, problem solving, analysis and other higher level thinking skills were not a major part of my school curriculum and students did not have much voice in the classroom.  In fact, my school’s curriculum resembled the working class schools Jean Anyon refers to in “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work” (Anyon, 1980).

As I heard the stories of (my study’s) participants (new teachers in an alternative licensure system), the way in which they described their schools reminded me of my own schooling experiences.  Their beliefs about the world, teaching and learning, students, themselves, and the education system shape their approach to teaching and the resulting impact they have on student learning.  More importantly, their ideologies, as precursors to beliefs, shape teacher behaviors and practices, which in turn impact student learning.

The participants expressed a general desire to make a difference in the lives of their students and to ensure their students achieve academic success.  They held a broad perspective of diversity and acknowledged it as both a challenge and an asset.  What became evident through my interactions with the participants was that while they hold positive intentions for students, their hegemonic ideologies will override their positive intentions.  Without intervention, the participants’ hegemonic ideologies manifested in their practices will perpetuate whiteness and undermine the success of their diverse students.

I do not believe they are prepared to act in the best interests of historically marginalized students.  Again, although well-meaning, the participants have not developed the critical consciousness and race awareness necessary to act in equitable and liberating ways.  They have not gone through the critical process of unlearning racism and, as such, they will continue to repress any notions of whiteness, further supporting their deficit perspectives of diverse students.  While they have gained a conceptual understanding of diversity and what it means to be an effective teacher of diverse students, their understanding is mired in hegemonic ideologies that serve to fragment their knowledge and distort their structural consciousness of it.  These hegemonic ideologies were not exposed and interrogated in the program and as a result the participants did not experience ideological transformation or a re-coding of their knowledge that would disrupt their repression and denial of whiteness.

Colorblindness will prevent them from getting to the heart of inequity where they will find urgency and purpose in counter-hegemonic teaching.  Not having engaged in the deep critical reflection required to expose hegemonic ideologies, the participants hold limited and distorted understandings about diversity and inequity that make it difficult for them to act in favor of truly equitable education.  These limited and distorted understandings are characteristic of dysconscious racism (King, 1991) and will serve as a hindrance to their success and the success of their diverse students.

Countering inequity in the educational system is no small task. Although there are numerous factors that influence student learning, it is well known that effective teachers can make a big difference in terms of narrowing the achievement gap.  Yet, our public education system continues to allow students growing up in poverty, students of color and low-performing students to be disproportionately taught by inexperienced, under-qualified teachers (Darling-Hammond & Sclan, 1996; Peske & Haycock, 2006) in under-resourced and low-quality schools.

Although I agree that teacher quality is important, I believe there is much more to being an effective teacher in a racialized society where schools serve as sorting mechanisms maintaining the hierarchial structures and preserving whiteness.  As such, it will take much more than providing children of color with access to high quality teachers.  Teachers must be critically conscious, having gone through the process of unlearning racism and positioned to engage in transformative counter-hegemonic pedagogy.  Any reform efforts aimed at improving the education of diverse students and closing the achievement gap must take into account the powerful potential of teachers to make a difference among the many other factors that impact student learning and achievement.

For true transformation to take place, teachers must realize their roles as counter-hegemonic teachers who challenge the unjust structures, policies and practices in schools that undermine the success of students of color.  Further, they need to transcend the conservative and liberal multicultural frameworks that serve as the cornerstone of most teacher education programs.  To become anti-racist teachers, they need to develop a critical multicultural perspective that will serve as a tool in subverting racism (Nylund, 2006).  Empowered with a critical lens, they will see whiteness as the“every day, invisible, subtle, cultural and social practices, ideas and codes that discursively secure the power and privilege of white people”, but that strategically remains unmarked, unnamed, and unmapped in contemporary society” (Shome, 1996, p. 503)

Critical reflection as an inward focused form of ideological critique can trigger a personal transformation where problematic ideologies are replaced with counter-hegemonic ones.  Essentially, ideological transformation can be equated with the unlearning of racism.  It is at this juncture that teachers may consciously choose their moral and ethical paths: whether to deny and repress conceptions of whiteness and continue to perpetuate and preserve it through their practices, or to acknowledge whiteness and work to dismantle it by enacting counter-hegemonic practices. The latter requires a deep commitment on the part of the teacher, and in making this commitment, the teacher subjects herself to a journey ridden in resistance and conflict, for no longer can she view her work through the rose colored glasses of the liberal framework that maintains an illusion of racelessness and the insidiousness of whiteness..

What is required is that teachers achieve ideological transformation through the unlearning of racism that replaces hegemonic ideologies with counter-hegemonic ones.  Unfortunately, given the recent pendulum shift towards standards-based, accountability models of education, it is unlikely that teachers will enter classrooms with even the bare minimum of cultural competency, as competencies related to diversity are sorely lacking in teacher education curriculum and state/national standards.


Anyon, J. (1980). Social class and the hidden curriculum of work. Journal of Education, 162(1), 1-11.

Darling-Hammond, L., & Sclan, E. M. (1996). Who teaches and why: Dilemmas of building a profession for twenty-first century schools. In J. Sikula (Ed.), Handbook of research on teacher education (pp. 67-101). New York: Macmillan.

Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum Publishing Company.

King, J. E. (1991). Dysconscious racism: Ideology, identity, and the miseducation of teachers. The Journal of Negro Education, 60(2), 133-146.

Peske, H. G., & Haycock, K. (2006). Teaching inequality: How poor and minority students are shortchanged on teacher quality. Washington, DC: The Education Trust.

Nylund, D. (2006). Critical multiculturalism, whiteness, and social work: Towards a more radical view of cultural competence. Journal of Progressive Human Services, 17(2), 27-42.

Shome, R. (1996). Race and popular cinema: The rhetorical strategies of whiteness in city of joy. Communication Quarterly, 44(4), 502-518.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

February 23, 2013 at 6:54 pm

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